Monday, August 29, 2011

Blessed are the poor in Spirit during Ramadan...

It's the last day of Ramadan, and I am asking myself: what have I learned from fasting for the past 30 days?

First of all, how difficult it is to fast during the summer, when days are long and hot. It's especially hard when you have a busy life, as mine has been, with a big wedding coming up. Trying to move out of my apartment during the hottest day of the summer, with helpers but no water, was not pretty. But God gave me the strength to persevere, just barely.

The physical stress of fasting has been huge, but there has also been psychological stress. My fiancee has been supportive of my fasting, but this is the first time she has been with someone who refrains from eating and drinking liquids during the daylight hours, and it's been a big adjustment for her. I rise before dawn for breakfast, and we don't have dinner together until nearly 8:00 PM--much later than usual. I am pretty perky in the morning, but my energy level declines in the afternoon. I am not as vigorous or as clear-minded as I am when I am well-fed, and to her I seem like a different person. This has exasperated my fiancee, who is usually very compassionate.

"I guess I'd have to get used to your being limited like this," she says, trying to adjust to this new normal.

Her sometimes patronizing attitude has been rather painful for me--I am all too aware of my limitations--my inability to be as physically active as I'd like to be, my inability to concentrate when thirst and hunger kick in--and don't like to be reminded of these deficits. But finally it dawned on me: that's what it's like to be poor and hungry. People treat you as if something is wrong with you because you don't act "normally."

I am also reminded of how Jesus "emptied himself of Godhead" and took on human limitations, and how humbling that must have been for someone who had seen the face of the Divine. Even though he was the Christ, Jesus was not omniscient or omnipotent--he felt pain, uncertainty, and weakness, just like us. Even though he had it in his power to be rich beyond measure, he choose to be poor, hungry, and thirsty.

This, I believe, is at the heart of the discipline of fasting: to become "poor in Spirit," to feel in one's gut what it means to lack the essentials that most people take for granted.

During meeting for worship yesterday, I shared the message that when we make a sacrifice or suffer for love's sake, we experience joy. I was inspired by a message that someone gave about C.S. Lewis, who discovered real love late in life when he married Joy Gresham, a writer who had cancer and died soon after their marriage. By marrying Joy,  Lewis, an aged academic set in his ways, found new life through love and suffering.

What led me to undertake my Ramadan fast ten years ago was John Woolman would have called "a motion of love." After 9/11, I felt tremendous anxiety--I was fearful not only of terrorism, but also of our misguided response to it. The phrase "perfect love drives out fear" came to mind, and became my mantra. I was led to fast to Ramadan as a way to put into practice Jesus' injunction to "love your neighbor" and "love your enemy." As a result of fasting during Ramadan, I was warmly embraced by the Muslim community and eventually came to love as well as appreciate my Muslim brothers and sisters as if they were my family. I was also led into interfaith work that transformed my life and made me feel part of what ML King called "the beloved community." Even though fasting was and continues to be a demanding discipline, through it I experienced incredible joy.

Fasting also deepened my relationship with the poor and homeless. During this Ramadan, I have been drawn more closely to this much misunderstood and maligned segment of our community. During Ramadan Jill and I took part in a homeless survey and walked the pre-dawn streets of Pasadena to find the most vulnerable and at-risk homeless people. We got to know and appreciate many of them, and even invited one homeless vet named Caesar to our wedding.

Yesterday, after I shared my message about Ramadan at my Quaker meeting, a homeless father named Robert showed up with his two kids--a 6-year-old girl named Daniela and an 8-year-old boy named Robert Jr. Robert was looking for a place to stay for the night since he had been asked to leave a nearly homeless shelter. I began asking Friends for help, and was able to raise $20--barely enough for a cheap motel room. Another Friend offered to provide hospitality for Robert  his kids in her home, but needed her husband's permission to do so.

While waiting for her to get permission, I drove Robert and his kids around Pasadena. We went to a homeless service center at a church where we spoke to an attendant via an intercom. He never actually came out to see us in person. Like the wizard of Oz, he hid behind a curtain and told us to "come back tomorrow to be processed."

Robert was very apolegetic and humble when turned down this way. He seemed resigned to rejection. I thanked the disembodied voice, but left feeling very dissatisfied with the encounter. Is this the way Jesus would have responded?

I ended up spending two hours with Robert and his two kids, and enjoyed every minute. Robert and Daniela were bright, charming children, eager to learn and to share what they were learning in school. We had fun doing math together, and I felt like an uncle.

I took them to an In-and-Out Burger and they ate their meal in shady spot next to my car under a cottonwood tree while I watched. It was blazingly hot, and I was incredibly hungry and thirsty, but I felt joyful and at peace hanging out with this little family.

Daniela had a great sense of humor. When I asked her how old I was, she smiled and responded, "100." There was a twinkle in her eye as she took in my bemused reaction.

When Daniela told me that In-and-Out-Burgers are the "goodest" in the world. I gently corrected her and said, "Don't you mean 'the best'?"

Her father (who was born in Pasadena but had a distinctly Spanish accident) said, "I don't speak English too good, and they learned from me."

"I love you, Papa," Daniela said sweetly. And her brother chimed in, "I love you, too."

I was moved almost to tears by this good man and his loving children, whose mother had left them two years earlier.

When we sat down for our meal, I asked if they'd like to say "grace." The father encouraged the son to say a prayer and then he added words of his own. Daniela clearly wasn't interested in this ritual.

Afterwards, I asked her what she knew about God and Jesus.

"Jesus is the most wonderful person in the world," she said. "One time, when someone didn't pray, he sent out an army after him."

Amused and amazed by this reply, I said that Jesus was all about love, and I don't think this was something he did.

"Then they lied about him at the church," Daniela said with great certitude.

It was fun hanging out with these kids who reminded me of the kids that Kathleen and I had taught at Vacation Bible School. It felt like a blessing, a gift from God, to spend my last Sunday in Ramadan with them.

My being with Robert and his family did not solve their problems, nor did I solve the problem of homelessness in our society. But it did deepen my commitment to do what I can to make sure that everyone is housed--a concern that was raised by my dear friend Lucia van Diepen during our recent Pacific Yearly Meeting session. Such heart connections are incredibly important when we undertake this kind of work.

I also felt I understood a little more clearly what Jesus meant when he said: "Blessed are the poor" and "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice."  He knew whereof he spoke from personal experience, and now so do I.

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